If you are an expert in your field or industry, you have probably learned a lot of jargon–and you've earned the right to use it. But you don't want runaway jargon to get in the way of successful communication. Here are ways to get control of your language.
1. Understand what jargon is. Jargon is any specialist's language that non-specialists do not use and probably do not understand. These are types of jargon:
- Undefined terms: mashup, corbel, nolo contendere, escheat, motocross.
- Words with special meanings: intervention, migration, vertical, talent, dashboard.
- Abbreviations (including acronyms) without definitions or spelled-out versions: CRM, OD, EOM, OFA, ERISA, JCAHO.
- Big, often vague words: methodologies, solo practitioners, anomalistic, multivariate.
- Symbols without explanations.
Remember: Non-specialists (for example, customers, clients, investors) may not use your jargon or understand it.
2. Recognize your own jargon. It's the language you use as a specialist. These examples come from various specialties:
- boom, sling, ratchet strap, skids, bell hole
- vertical market, downstream vertical integration, value chain
- fee simple, acceleration clause, third-party origination
- holding pattern, tarmac, flight level, ATC
- radar camouflage, navigation head, flag officer
- bogeyed, par out, back nine, Masters
- responsibility matrix, visibility room, Gantt chart, crash table
The examples above demonstrate that not only engineers and computer wizards use jargon. All of us specialists have our own expert lingo.
To recognize whether a term you want to use is jargon, ask yourself: Do our potential customers or clients, new employees and interns, and senior leaders use this term? If your answer to any part of that question is no, your term is jargon.
3. Reserve your jargon for use with people who understand and appreciate it–that is, your professional, industry, and company peer groups who are also specialists.
Unless you define or explain it, do not use jargon in any communications outside your expert peer groups: reports to senior management, recommendations to the board, letters to customers, web sites, marketing packets, annual reports, newsletters, grant proposals, user manuals, etc.
4. When you must write the same message to specialists and non-specialists (including people in your field who are not yet experts), use jargon. However, define it, explain it, spell it out, give examples, and provide visual illustrations. Teach your readers like this:
- "CRM–a customer relationship management system, which helps companies efficiently handle their contacts with customers."
- "When we use the word talent, we are referring to our employees at every level of the organization."
- ". . . in organization development (OD). OD specialists . . . "
- "a solo practitioner, that is, an attorney working alone in private practice"
- "corbel (wood or stone used to support the counter top–see illustration)"
When writing to a mixed audience, avoid jargon in the subject line, title, or first sentences. If your readers get lost at the start of your message, it's you who have lost them–and lost the chance to communicate with them. In a long document, provide a glossary or use hyperlinks to definitions. For symbols, show a key or legend frequently. Even a symbol as simple as $$$ must be defined for people who are not your regular readers or specialists in your area.
5. In indexes, use both technical terms (jargon) and non-technical terms. If your customers think the cool-air feature in their car is an air-conditioner, do not call it only a "climate control system." Index it under "climate control system," "air-conditioner," "cooling," and "cold air." If you are not certain what your customers call an item, ask them.
6. If you want people to find you on the Internet, use both jargon and general terms so that both experts and non-experts can find you. If you refer to yourself only as a "domestic law attorney," potential clients will not find you if they are looking for a divorce lawyer, adoption lawyer, child custody attorney, or elder law expert. Include the language people use in their online searches.
Do you have to take control of your jargon? No. You only have to control it if you want to communicate with potential clients and customers, investors, sponsors, citizens, senior executives, and others who can help you achieve your goals.
I welcome examples of jargon done right and done wrong. Please share them.